China-Africa Relations and the Global Village: Diplomatic Perspective

By Swan, James | DISAM Journal, September 2008 | Go to article overview

China-Africa Relations and the Global Village: Diplomatic Perspective


Swan, James, DISAM Journal


[The following are excerpts from a speech given at Howard University, Washington, DC, April 1, 2008.]

What I'd like to do is run very, very quickly through our analysis of the reasons for Chinas interest in Africa, Africans' interest in China, and some of the concerns both we and the Africans share with Chinas approach. But then I want to focus on how we engage China on African issues, how we manage the practical aspects of diplomacy with a rising power on the continent.

To begin with what the military call the "BLUF", or bottom line up front, it is this: China has real interests in Africa, so it is normal that China would be involved in Africa. That's not surprising. That's not frightening. That's reality. The challenge for the U.S. is how to manage our relationship with China not as a new player in Africa, because it is not, but as a more active and potentially influential player.

As this conference attests, the topic of China in Africa has been a hot one for the past several years. And Chinas involvement in the continent has increased. Notably, in November 2006 the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing drew 43 heads of state and representatives from 5 other African nations'--more than normally attend an African Union summit! In February 2007, Chinese President Hu toured Africa--his third such trip in as many years. Yet, as President Bush remarked during his visit to Africa, China's involvement in Africa shouldn't be seen as a "zero-sum game" characterized primarily as a competition with the United States. The challenge is to encourage China to become involved in Africa in a way that supports international norms and demonstrates that China is operating in the international system as a responsible stakeholder.

Chinese Interests in Africa

Why is China more involved in Africa? There are three interests primarily driving China: access to resources, access to markets, and pursuit of diplomatic allies.

As you have surely heard over the past two days, Chinas rapid growth has led to a voracious appetite for the commodities that feed industrial and manufacturing production. Africa is a key source of these commodities. Africa now supplies some 30 percent of Chinas oil imports, with Angola its lead supplier.

The Chinese are the largest foreign investors in Sudan. China imported over $1.9 billion worth of goods from Sudan in 2006. Most of this was crude oil. And there are many other examples of resources [imported] from Africa--from Gabonese timber to Zimbabwean platinum.

Sub-Saharan [Africa] also represents a market of some 800 million people, with recent average GDP [Gross Domestic Product] growth of more than 6 percent annually. Chinas trade with sub-Saharan Africa has increased ten-fold over the past decade. Based on current trends, China will become sub-Saharan Africa's largest trading partner in 2011.

Finally, China has an interest in cultivating diplomatic allies among sub-Saharan Africa's 48 countries. China wants to reduce the number of countries with diplomatic relations with Taiwan. (Five African nations currently recognize Taiwan, with Chad switching to recognize Beijing in August 2006.) More broadly, China sees sub-Saharan Africa as a significant pool of support in the UN [United Nations] and other international bodies. After all, in 1971 it was African votes that seated Beijing and ousted Taipei in the United Nations.

China's Appeal in Africa

China appeals to Africa as well. China offers a market for African goods, albeit mostly from extractive industries. Overall, Asia accounts for 27% of Africa's exports.

China's aid programs are attractive to Africans in some ways. China offers aid to African governments with no strings attached. China funds visible and much-needed infrastructure projects--railroads, bridges, dams--at a time when Western governments have largely shifted away from this form of development assistance. …

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